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Although the POETICS of Aristotle was not generally known in the Greek or in translation until the Renaissance, its importance as the "founding document" of western literary criticism has made it the standard against which the success or failure of drama written in every age has been measured. Such is not without risk, in that misinterpretations abound. For example, the celebrated tragic flaw a hero is supposed to possess is taken in the Christian scheme to be a moral error, but to the pre-Christian Greek philosopher Aristotle, the term did not imply a moral error, but rather an intellectual one, an error in judgment. Therefore whether The Poetics can successfully be applied to Shakespeare remains problematic. Critic Leon Golden has addressed these issues as applied to Shakespeare. Nonetheless, we will outline some of Aristotle's most important beliefs and see if the dramatic literature under consideration fits his criteria:

Click here for WEB SITES on Aristotle and other classical sources.


Aristotle on the nature of literature as mimetic:

It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: lo though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies. The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it; the reason is of the delight in seeing the picture is that one is at the same time learning-gathering the meaning of things, e. g. that the man there is so-and -so; for if one has not seen the thing before.

Aristotle on the nature of tragedy:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing the mode of action; not narrated; and effecting pity and fear [what we call catharsis] of such emotions.

The imitation of the action is the plot. Tragedy is not an imitation of men but of actions and life. It is in action that happiness and unhappiness are found, and the end which we aim at is a kind of activity...It is for the sake of their actions that [agents] take on the characters they have. Thus what happens--that is, the plot, is the end for which a tragedy exists, and the end or purpose is the most important thing of is whole, [having] a beginning, middle and end.

Dramatic poetry's function is...not to report things that have happened, but rather to tell of such things that might express the universal.

[Aristotle speaks of the need for mature tragedy to have a complex action by which he meant that reversal and recognition result logically from a change in fortune]:

Good men ought not to be shown passing from prosperity to misfortune, for this does not inspire either pity or fear, but only revulsion; nor evil men rising from ill fortune to prosperity...neither should a wicked man be seen falling from prosperity into misfortune...We are left with the man whose place is between these extremes. Such is the man who on the one hand does not fall into misfortune through vice or depravity. He falls because of some mistake ...[This is often mistranslated as the tragic flaw.]

The parts of the poetics that Aristotle wrote concerning the nature of comedy are lost. Fragments survive, some of which is printed below. Note that the material relevant to comedy is closely linked to the observations made about tragedy. We know from human experience that the link between comedy and tragedy is often very hard to distinguish:

ARISTOTLE on the nature of comedy:

The objects the imitator represents are actions, with agents who are necessarily either good men or bad-the diversities of human character being nearly always derivative from this primary distinction, since the line between virtue and vice is one dividing the whole of mankind. It follows, therefore, that the agents represented must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are; in the same way...This difference it is that distinguishes Tragedy and Comedy also; the one would make its personages worse, and the other better, than the men of the present day.

As for Comedy, it is (as has been observed) an imitation of men worse than the average; worse, however, not as regards any and every sort of fault, but only as regards one particular kind, the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly. The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others; the mask, for instance, that excites laughter, is something ugly and distorted without causing pain.

Though the successive changes in Tragedy and their authors are not unknown, we cannot say the same of Comedy; its early stages passed unnoticed, because it was not as yet taken up in a serious way.

Aristotle on the nature of Epic poetry [Homer] and its relationship to tragedy:

Epic poetry and Tragedy / mimeticism:

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of
morality...Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves
learning or inferring..., and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that is he.' For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause. Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.

Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men. A poem of the satirical kind cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than Homer; though many such writers probably there were. But from Homer onward, instances can be cited As, in the serious style, Homer is preeminent among poets, for he alone combined dramatic form with excellence of imitation...

Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. They differ in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit, whereas the Epic action has no limits of time. This, then, is a second point of difference; though at first the same freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry. Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar to Tragedy: whoever, therefore knows what is good or bad Tragedy, knows also about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found in the Epic poem.

The poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable. Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the Deus ex Machina- as in the Medea, or in the return of the Greeks in the Iliad. The Deus ex Machina should be employed only for events external to the drama- for antecedent or subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to be reported or foretold; for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things. Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element the Oedipus of Sophocles.

Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level, the example of good portrait painters should be followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful. So too the poet, in representing men who are irascible or indolent, or have other defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it. In this way Achilles is portrayed by Homer. These then are rules the poet should observe. Nor should he neglect those appeals to the senses, which, though not among the essentials, are the concomitants of poetry; for here too there is much room for error. But of this enough has been said in our published treatises.

Again, Epic poetry must have as many kinds as Tragedy: it must be simple, or complex, or 'ethical,'or 'pathetic.' The parts also, with the exception of song and spectacle, are the same; for it requires Reversals of the Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering. Moreover, the thoughts and the diction must be artistic. In all these respects Homer is our earliest and sufficient model. Epic poetry differs from Tragedy in the scale on which it is constructed, and in its meter. As regards scale or length, we have already laid down an adequate limit: the beginning and the end must be capable of being brought within a single view. This condition will be satisfied by poems on a smaller scale than the old epics, and answering in length to the group of tragedies presented at a single sitting. Epic poetry has, however, a great- a special- capacity for enlarging its dimensions, and we can see the reason. In Tragedy we cannot imitate several lines of actions carried on at one and the same time; we must confine ourselves to the action on the stage and the part taken by the players. But in Epic poetry, owing to the narrative form, many events simultaneously transacted can be presented; and these, if relevant to the subject, add mass and dignity to the poem. The Epic has here an advantage, and one that conduces to grandeur of effect, to diverting the mind of the hearer, and relieving the story with varying episodes. For sameness of incident soon produces satiety, and makes tragedies fail on the stage.

The element of the wonderful is required in Tragedy. The irrational, on which the wonderful depends for its chief effects, has wider scope in Epic poetry, because there the person acting is not seen. Thus, the pursuit of Hector would be ludicrous if placed upon the stage- the Greeks standing still and not joining in the pursuit, and Achilles waving them back. But in the Epic poem the absurdity passes unnoticed. Now the wonderful is pleasing, as may be inferred from the fact that every one tells a story with some addition of his knowing that his hearers like it. It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully. The secret of it lies in a fallacy For, assuming that if one thing is or becomes, a second is or becomes, men imagine that, if the second is, the first likewise is or becomes. But this is a false inference. Hence, where the first thing is untrue, it is quite unnecessary, provided the second be true, to add that the first is or has become. For the mind, knowing the second to be true, falsely infers the truth of the first.

The question may be raised whether the Epic or Tragic mode of imitation is the higher. If the more refined art is the higher, and the more refined in every case is that which appeals to the better sort of audience, the art which imitates anything and everything is manifestly most unrefined. The audience is supposed to be too dull to comprehend unless something of their own is thrown by the performers, who therefore indulge in restless movements. Bad flute-players twist and twirl, if they have to represent 'the quoit-throw,' or hustle the coryphaeus when they perform the Scylla. Tragedy, it is said, has this same defect.

If, then, tragedy is superior to epic poetry in all these respects, and, moreover, fulfills its specific function better as an art- for each art ought to produce, not any chance pleasure, but the pleasure proper to it, as already stated- it plainly follows that tragedy is the higher art, as attaining its end more perfectly.

ARISTOTLE'S ETHICS and POLITICS / the nature of Virtue:

The following selection is from a good secondary source:

From Plato to Nietzsche by E.L. Allen. Fawcett Books, 1988, pp. 37-40. Allen’s reflections might help with the notion of “tragic flaw” mentioned above. What would a Renaissance interpretation suggest?

When Aristotle turns his attention to moral questions, he does what Plato did and what any Greek would have done; he brings these under the heading of 'the good' rather than the right'. That is to say, he is concerned not so much with the obligations men are under as with the ends they seek. What a man seeks is what he regards as 'the good'. The term good is normally relative; a knife is good for cutting, a bat for a baseball game, aspirin for relieving headache, etc. Is there, beyond all these things that are good as means, something that is good as an end in itself, good absolutely?

If so, it will be the Supreme goal of human endeavor. Aristotle thinks there will be general agreement as to what this supreme good is. It is happiness. That, however; does not help much, as there are so many opinions on what constitutes happiness. His own suggestion is that happiness for man lies in the unimpeded exercise of his peculiar function, of what stamps him as a man. In the light of what has been said above, this will be his reason. "If this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

That the word 'virtue' here has a much wider range than us is shown by the fact that Aristotle goes to distinguish between intellectual and moral virtues. Some such translation as 'characteristic excellence' bring out its meaning better. But before we glance at intellectual virtues, we shall do well to note how down-to-earth Aristotle's treatment of the good is. He adds that, in addition to intellectual and moral qualities, it needs also a certain amount of external goods and extension over a whole life.To return now: to the intellectual virtues. There are two in number, practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom. The former is our guide in the conduct of life, giving us both general principles and the insight to discern how these are to be applied in particular situations. Aristotle is careful to point out that most men go wrong, not because their principles are mistaken, but because they do not bring particular instances under the general rule they acknowledge. This implies, as he readily allows, that no hard and fast line can be drawn between moral and intellectual virtues.

We come now to the moral virtues. These are not, mere actions, which might be sporadic and not indicative at all of what the person himself is; they are states of character. As such, they are the product of a discipline to which we submit ourselves; but we must have an aptitude for that discipline to begin with; On the dispute between nature and nurture, Aristotle would say that actuality by nurture. Aristotle says: "Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by nature."

We form good character by developing good habits, and we form good habits by the repetition of good actions. The process is analogous to that of the flute player who becomes accomplished by constant practice, or, as we should say, the tennis star who never misses a day at the nets, Morality is thus the art of living well, and the good man is the virtuoso. Aristotle writes: "Can we further describe the form this art of living well will take? Yes, we can go on to define virtue as"a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it."

Virtue is the mean between two extremes, each of which is bad. Yet the mean is not reached by a mathematical computation, but by tact, a discernment that is itself morally conditioned. The theory appeals at once to the ordinary person, though on examination it turns out to have its difficulties. We can see clearly, for example, that the brave man is one who neither risks his life in foolhardiness nor preserves it at all costs in cowardice. In war, he knows just when he should die at his post and when he should surrender because further struggle is useless. So the miser and the prodigal represent the extremes avoided by the man who knows just when to spend his money and when to save it. But Aristotle admits that there is no word for the man who is neither ambitious, so claiming too much, nor unambitious, not claiming enough. That there is a state of character that keeps the balance we need not doubt.

The important question remains of the highest kind of life and where it ought to be sought. Here Aristotle finds himself pulled in two directions. He lived in a society that called on the citizen to participate in politics, to sit on the jury, and-to bear arms in times of war. Yet the same time it cultivated leisure end the interchange of ideas in conversation. Is action or contemplation the more desirable? Aristotle opts for the latter, while allowing to the former a second and by no means dishonourable place. In the exercise of theoretical reason, in speculation and inquiry, man lives by the highest part of himself, by that which he shares with the gods, It is within man's power to live on earth the immortal life, and let him not refuse to do this, for that would be to surrender to false modesty. But the good citizen who faithfully discharges the duties of his station ranks next in order of merit. The last thing Aristotle wishes to do is to loosen he bonds of society, though he sees that the highest dimension of life transcends, not the limitations only, but also the duties of society.

Aristotle said: "If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at a good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good."

Aristotle ascribes to the laws an educative role: "The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives."

The state, that is to say, embodies a conception of the good life, moral standards etc., and it must communicate these to the growing generation. The highest accomplishments, however, will be those in which a man indulges for their own sake, such as music and philosophy.


Not all plays may be approached the same way, just as poems often differ in how they must be analyzed. However, critic Len Mozzi suggests six key questions which, although appearing simple, can be quite provocative in discussing key issues:


exposition inciting force rising action turning point climax
falling action denouement static/dynamic characters setting
dialogue conflict--physical / mental / moral / social / psychological
stage directions soliloquies asides


Shakespeare inherited the traditions described above. How then in the Renaissance are these traditions reflected in the plays he wrote? Can Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero be successfully applied? A problem, for example, is the notion of a tragic flaw. The Greek definition implies an error in judgment, while the Medieval / Renaissance definition was modified by Christianity implying a flaw with moral, not judgmental connotations. How far then do Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear or Othello fit the Aristotelian model? Would Aristotle regard your favorite TV sit-com as funny? What makes something funny, and is there a relationship between comedy and tragedy that Shakespeare as well as writers today address?